Do I need a 5G Private Network or can I make do with Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi and 5G Private Networks are complementary technologies that address different use cases in industrial settings – it’s not one or the other, but most likely, both together with the aim of making 5G Private Networks a serious consideration for industrial wireless needs.


Much has been said in the media lately about 5G. The big mobile operators are rapidly upgrading their public networks and recently we were proud to confirm our role in the deployment of the UK’s first operational 5G SA (Standalone) private wireless network. Read more about this project here.

But what does this mean for Wi-Fi? Do 5G Private Networks provide the answer to all future industrial wireless connectivity needs? In this article we’ll explore some of the key differences between these complementary technologies and discuss the important role that both technologies can play in our homes, factories, industrial facilities and offices of the future.

Is Wi-Fi the answer?

Let’s begin by stating that Wi-Fi has a big future. The advent of Wi-Fi 6 and soon Wi-Fi 7 brings with it some major technological improvements that will be with us for decades to come. But there are many situations where Wi-Fi is not the best option, which brings other connectivity choices into play.

The need for many of us to work from home has meant we’ve all relied heavily on Wi-Fi in recent years. And now that travel is becoming more viable, often the first thing we do when we visit an unfamiliar office, hotel, shopping centre, or even a friend’s house, is seek out the available connectivity options. Have I got mobile coverage? What’s the Wi-Fi password?

For connectivity in carpeted environments Wi-Fi is affordable, easy to set up, very widely available and provides more than adequate performance for most of our day-to-day connectivity, entertainment and work needs. Wi-Fi is now a mature technology with an enormous ecosystem of available devices.

But despite its ubiquity Wi-Fi does have several drawbacks in industrial settings.

  • Range is limited, especially on large sites, and can be easily blocked by machinery, metal objects, or other environmental changes
  • Security is sometimes viewed as a weak point in Wi-Fi networks
  • As it uses shared radio frequencies it can be prone to interference from neighbouring networks
  • High bandwidth and data throughput may be difficult to achieve

Taken together, these drawbacks mean that a Wi-Fi network may not provide the required performance, security, control and reliability for key industrial use cases.

The rise of 5G

If you’ve recently bought a new mobile phone it’s likely to be 5G Ready, and the big mobile operators are upgrading their networks accordingly. But this is only part of the story. 5G is as much, if not more about the connectivity of machines and devices (Internet of Things) than it is about people. In fact, for the average consumer, the benefits of 5G over existing 4G/LTE networks are minimal and, for now, unlikely to justify the investment in a new handset on its’ own.

So, let’s turn our attention to the connectivity needs of these machines and devices.

If we consider equipment located in factories, ports, logistics / distribution centres, and construction sites, these typically have many things in common:

  • Operate across large sites, making Wi-fi coverage problematic
  • Often in areas of poor mobile operator coverage
  • Lots of machinery and metalwork that can block Wi-Fi signals
  • Constantly changing - they need to quickly and easily adapt to new layouts, equipment or working practices as businesses or projects evolve, which could be a problem if the site is hard wired

In addition, the equipment itself may also have common connectivity needs:

  • Highly reliable connectivity to minimise health and safety risks and downtime
  • Low latency for precise remote control of machinery
  • High, guaranteed bandwidth for devices with high data throughput such as cameras and other sensors

Whilst Wi-Fi and current mobile operator networks were not designed for these demanding environments, the standards behind 5G Private Networks most certainly are. With a 5G Private Network customers have complete control. They can configure network settings, Quality of Service, network slicing, granular bandwidth allocation and security to meet their specific needs. In addition, these networks can be completely closed if required to give an extra layer of security.

Recent rule changes by Ofcom mean enterprises can now apply for their own lightly licenced and cost-effective slice of radio spectrum free from interference by noisy neighbours. The technology exists today to address many of these industrial use cases with much more to come.

The 5G standards are still evolving and will continue to do so over the coming years. This will enable a raft of new use cases in the automotive, eHealth and utilities sectors, as well as smart cities, campuses and stadia.

Best of both worlds

As we can see, these two technologies can meet the wireless needs of many enterprise customers today. Enterprises are likely to have a wide range of people, machines and devices that require connectivity for their business to be productive.

It’s unlikely this variety of needs can be met by a single technology, which means it’s vital that enterprises make the right choice for the specific use case. It seems likely that the factories of the future will be powered by hybrid networks that provide the best of both worlds.

Gerard Donohue, Chief Technical Officer at Telent

Find out more from Telent about industrial applications of 5G Private Networks here.

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